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What to Say to Employees When You Don’t Know What to Say: Executive Messaging for Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

By Dorian Cundick | March 02, 2022 | 0 Comments

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This is a dark and scary moment. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a potential world war in the making, played out surreally in live images as the whole world tunes in. We’re watching the real-time unfolding of a massive humanitarian crisis, bracing for economic and geopolitical fallout.

All of this of course touches our employees. Many organizations have people in Ukraine or Russia who are directly affected, and in our impossibly interconnected world of 2022, we all know someone who knows someone who is suffering right now. 

Your employees at this moment need reassurance and comfort and a way to alleviate the crushing disempowerment that comes with not knowing how to help—and they’re looking to your executives. But what does an executive say when there is so much emotion and so much unknown?

Here are four specific points of advice you can use to counsel them.

Be the adult in the room.

This one may sound odd, but Gartner data reveals a distinct trend over several years now: employees increasingly turning to their organizations as surrogates for social and political institutions that have fallen into turmoil. Essentially, they are looking to their executives for stability and leadership.

Our recent research into Executive Communications revealed an interesting wrinkle– employees don’t like their executives to be too informal. Likable and approachable, yes. But employees say they don’t need leaders to be their best friend—they need someone they can trust to run the organization well. They want a little bit of that comforting distance where they can go about their business knowing that, come what may, someone capable is always vigilant at the helm.

Help your senior leaders own this. This is their moment to use messaging opportunities to project calm and competence. Most employees already believe their senior leaders are competent, so help leaders lean into that and share enough information for employees to feel confident that the organization is ready to face whatever appears next on the horizon.

Share what they’re grappling with as leaders.

Chances are that your senior leaders are meeting in back rooms right now discussing the very serious implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How does the organization best support affected employees? Are there parts of the business that are directly or indirectly supporting Putin’s ability to wage war? Do they need to make swift changes to operations in some form to act ethically, or to shore up the business for tough times ahead?

Your executives may not have all the answers right now—it would be surprising if they did. But Gartner data bears out that employees are more likely to trust their leaders when they have greater visibility into how those leaders make decisions. Let employees know what considerations are being discussed, even in absence of firm decisions or answers. What are the potential external developments that could necessitate a change of course?

Just knowing that certain considerations are under discussion can also bring a proxy sense of “doing something.” We’re hearing from Communicators that they’re fielding questions from employees all over the world asking what their organization is doing about the invasion and spiraling collateral crises. Being told directly that executives are also concerned with doing something—and are working out what that looks like– can help fill that fundamental psychological need for action.

Emphasize the things that don’t change.

When the world is topsy-turvy, we need something to anchor to. Our organizations have anchor points within our narrative or values or brand or strategic vision. What are those few things that they can count on to remain the same no matter what? It may be re-emphasizing our commitment to one another as co-workers. Or focusing doggedly on the needs of our customers. It may be re-iterating our commitments to certain ESG objectives even if they require tough decisions or strategic changes down the line. 

Settle in for a real chat.

Dialogue in the very best of times will bring out better engagement and performance in your people. In difficult times like these, it becomes an absolute lifeline. Coach your executives to take whatever comfort zone they have with open Q&A and then stretch the boundaries just a little bit further.

Best practice approaches include:

  • Devoting the majority of time in meetings to Q&A
  • Letting employees transparently vote on which questions they most want answered
  • Involving the broader executive team in answering questions
  • Providing channels through which any employees anywhere can submit questions at any time, and then count on receiving an answer
  • Addressing rather than dodging the difficult questions

Intentionally creating space for open dialogue has the dual benefit of giving executives better visibility into what employees are most worried about—while giving employees much greater insight into what and how their executives think.

At Gartner, we are mindful of how difficult and challenging these times are. Our team will be working to provide support as the situation evolves, and we are always available to be thought partners as you work to support your leaders and employees.  

 

For additional guidance, see Gartner’s research on Improving Organizational Trust with Executive Communications.

 

 

 

 

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